Trip Report: Tirthan Valley, Himachal Pradesh (India), March 12-15, 1999

Tom and Margot Southerland, 282 Western Way, Princeton, NJ 08540 USA;


The state of Himachal Pradesh lies just south of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, northeast of the Punjab and northwest of Uttar Pradesh. Tibet borders it to its east. Within its borders are both foothills and high peaks of the Himalayas. Because Himachal Pradesh offers the visitor lush valleys, roaring streams and splendid snow-capped peaks, it is popular with outsiders as a place for trekking, mountain climbing, sightseeing and, more recently, skiing. The religion is Tibetan Buddhism, and small shrines are often seen along the roads. The people are very friendly and seem both curious and interested in the few visitors they see. Not surprisingly, the gravel roads in the rural areas are winding ones and seem tighter than they are when buses come barreling along and want to pass.

There were seven of us -- three couples and a single -- visiting the scenic Tirthan Valley. All of us were from the USA except our friends from Delhi who are birders and are frequent summer vacationers in the area. To reach our destination, we flew in a commuter-type airplane from Delhi and landed in central Himachal Pradesh at the thriving town of Kullu. We then rode southward in two jeep-like vehicles along some twisting gravel roads for about three hours to our comfortable lodge located just outside the small village of Goshaini. The area is the starting point for the treks to Bachleo Pass and the Great Himalayan National Park.

The lodge, known locally as a 'bungalow', is located alongside the white-water, rocky river Tirthan. Some 15 metres behind the lodge is a pear orchard planted in terraces cut high up into the steep hillside. Many of the trees were blooming and added to the valley's beauty. We had to cross the river one at a time via a trolley consisting of an overhead cable with a pulley attached to our makeshift seat resembling a basket. This arrangement was installed and maintained by the lodge. The pulling of a hemp line by someone on the destination side provided us the locomotion to get across. We averaged about four crossings each day returning for meals and in between birding trips. Several times, however, we made a loop by walking along a path behind the lodge, crossing over the river on the bridge at Goshaini, walking back along the road and then re-crossing the river by the cable-pulley system to reach the lodge.

We found the weather delightful -- cool in the evenings and early mornings. And, we greatly enjoyed sleeping under blankets at night but if you wanted more heat, each room even had its own fireplace. On the other hand, the electricity was a bit temperamental as it was controlled by the town generator. We had both sun and clouds but no rain. A windbreaker or sweatshirt was sufficient during the day except the one day we went up to about 2,600 metres (8,500 feet) when we did wear winter jackets. Gloves and a hat were not necessary although we took them.

Birding and Birds

The Tirthan Valley, and its surrounding countryside, offers the birder a variety of habitats to explore, ranging from temperate vegetation up to subalpine forests. Although this narrow valley is dominated by the river knifing its way through steep rock-strewn cliffs, there are numerous patches of woods and shrubs, plus the human cultivation of apple and pear orchards and small farm plots. At certain places along the road we could occasionally see the snow-covered Himalayan peaks that were not too far away. Besides the seven of us and two drivers, a ranger from Jim Corbett National Park in Uttar Pradesh joined us on some of the days including the trip to the high country.

Birds are numerous enough but not the numbers of species as in warmer climes. After you have seen some of the more common birds you have to put in time just to pick up one or two new species here and one or two there. Some of the birds, such as the tits, do travel in mixed flocks so that helps. Birding alongside the river offers redstarts, Crested Kingfisher and a number of other species. Upon occasion an Ibisbill will appear along the river's stony shores but we were probably too late. And when out in the open it pays to look upward for a raptor such as Lammergeier or Himalayan Griffon, birds spotted within the valley. One bird that paid our lodge several close visits was the spectacular Gold-billed Magpie, and we later saw even more. At the higher elevations in subalpine and upper temperate zones in forests of oak, rhododendron, fir and hemlock (and with snow on the ground in the subalpine) we enjoyed gorgeous views of the Himalayas all around. It was not a surprise to find a number of new trip species including Eurasian Nutcracker, White-collared Blackbird and Black-and-yellow Grosbeak.

We did dip on one special bird in the higher elevations that we wanted to see. It was the brilliantly garbed pheasant, the Himalayan Monal. Late in the afternoon while the light was still good, we went to an area to look up the slopes of a grassy hill, an area where these wary birds supposedly come out of the woods late in the day. After waiting for about fifteen minutes we suddenly saw two men appear off to the left of the area we were searching. Each carried a long, old-fashioned gun. Fortunately, they were not carrying any birds. But nevertheless, it was unfortunate for us. We knew we would not see any Monals. It also explained why we saw several large Hindu signs in the valley with a painting of the Monal and words to the effect that these birds have a right to live as we. So much for the written word being helpful.

Bird Books


Snow Leopards can be found as well as both Himalayan Black Bear (more common) and Brown Bears but all would be difficult to find unless one was willing to devote great effort -- time and expense. We did not even see deer or antelope but were not in the best areas for them, and we had seen so many in other locations in India that there was no need to try.

Bird Sightings

Note 1: We use a number for 50-100 birds
Note 2: Our field list was only a partial one for days 2 and 3 so numbers of the more common birds seen will be greater than shown below.

  Little Grebe                    Tachybaptus ruficollis (1)
  Great Grebe                     Podiceps major  (1 or 2) 
  Lammergeier                     Gypaetus barbatus  (3, great views)
  Himalayan Griffon               Gyps himalayensis  (14) 
  Eurasian Kestrel                Falco tinnunculus  (1)
F Snow Pigeon                     Columba leuconota  (2 on the ground)
F Speckled Wood Pigeon            Columba hodgsonii  (several)
  Slaty-headed Parakeet           Psittacula himalayana  (2)
  Jungle Owlet                    Glaucidium radiatum  (1)
  Crested Kingfisher              Megaceryle lugubris  (2)
F Brown-fronted Woodpecker        Dendrocopos auriceps  (1, great view)
F Yellow-bellied Fantail          Rhipidura hypoxantha  (1, nice views)
F Gold-billed Magpie              Urocissa flavirostris  (12)
  Eurasian Nutcracker             Nucifraga caryocatactes  (1)
  Large-billed Crow               Corvus macrorhynchos  (a number)
  Brown Dipper                    Cinclus pallasii  (6)
  Blue Whistling-Thrush           Myiophonus caeruleus  (at least 10)
F White-collared Blackbird        Turdus albocinctus  (1sitting in tree)
  Mistle Thrush                   Turdus viscivorus  (1 sitting in tree)
  Verditer Flycatcher             Eumyias thalassina  (male)
  Gray-headed Canary-flycatcher   Culicicapa ceylonensis  (1)
F Orange-flanked Bush-Robin       Tarsiger cyanurus  (male, great view)
F Blue-capped Redstart            Phoenicurus caeruleocephalus  (male in the open)
  White-capped Redstart           Chaimarrornis leucocephalus  (at least 6)
  Plumbeous Redstart              Rhyacornis fuliginosus  (over 10)
F Spotted Forktail                Enicurus maculatus  (1 near lodge)
  Common Stonechat                Saxicola torquata  (female)
  Gray Bushchat                   Saxicola ferrea  (about 5)
  Wallcreeper                     Tichodroma muraria  (1 fairly close to road)
F Bar-tailed Treecreeper          Certhia himalayana   (two pair)
F White-cheeked Tit               Aegithalos leucogenys  (3 or 4)
F Black-throated Tit              Aegithalos concinnus  (1, nice views) 
  Himalayan Bulbul                Pycnonotus leucogenys  (4)
F Black Bulbul                    Hypsipetes leucocephalus  (about 10)
  Oriental White-eye              Zosterops palpebrosus  (several)
  Gray-hooded Warbler             Seicercus xanthoschistus  (at least 12)
F Streaked Laughingthrush         Garrulax lineatus (3, nominate race) 
F Scaly-breasted Wren-Babbler     Pnoepyga albiventer  (adult and imm.)
F Black-chinned Babbler           Stachyris pyrrhops  (3)
F White-browed Fulvetta           Alcippe vinipectus  (1)
  Great Tit                       Parus major  (1)
F Green-backed Tit                Parus monticolus  (at least 10)
  Eurasian Tree Sparrow           Passer montanus  (several)
  Common Rosefinch                Carpodacus erythrinus  (a number)
F Pink-browed Rosefinch           Carpodacus rhodochrous  (male, 4 females)
F Black-and-yellow Grosbeak       Mycerobas icteriodes  (5 - 8)
F Rock Bunting                    Emberiza cia  (2 males, 2 females)
47 species

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